While Part 1 of this article addresses the philosophical aspects of populism, Part 2 intends to provide an economic answer to this real-world political question:
How Did “Trumpism” Happen in the United States?
1. The “Traditional” US Political System and Populism
Section 1 will briefly discuss the traditions and the evolution of the United States political system, providing a historical background for the economic and political analysis discussed later in Section 2.
It is very common nowadays to refer to the United States of America as the “beacon of democracy.” However, the “American Democracy” of which we might conceive today is not part of the traditions of the American political system until, arguably, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
It is clear that the Founding Fathers of the United States did not intend to create a political system where the people should become the dominant political force. Aware of the ghastly dangers of populism, the Founders designed, in fact, a political system that aims to protect people’s liberty rights by making political decisions through a combination of elitism and pluralism, rather than majoritarianism.
Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.
— James Madison, Federalist 51
The following facts are exemplifications of the lack of populist traditions in the “original” American political system:
- There is an extremely sophisticated system of checks and balances among the President, the Congress, the judiciary, and the bureaucracy at both the federal and state levels, in addition to the separation of power that already exists between the federal government and the state governments. (This exemplifies pluralism).
- Although there are limited retention elections for local judges in some states, there is no election for Supreme Court justices, or any other federal justices for that matter. The President and the Senate have the powers to appoint and approve federal justices, who manage the judicial branch of the government. (This exemplifies both elitism and pluralism).
- For a century after the country’s founding, people who had substantial suffrage were only wealthy white male US citizens. Different means of disenfranchisement were used to bar the “non-elites” from participating in the political process, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. (This exemplifies elitism).
- This is rather symbolic, but the word “democracy” never appears in neither the Declaration of Independence nor the United States Constitution. That is to say, “democracy” (or “liberal democracy,” more specifically) was not a core ideal upon the founding of the American nation. In contrast, words such as “free,” “liberty,” “justice,” “property” were mentioned repeatedly in the two official founding documents of the United States.
Talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity, may alone suffice to elevate a man to the first honors in a single State; but it will require other talents, and a different kind of merit, to establish him in the esteem and confidence of the whole Union.
— Alexander Hamilton, explaining the necessity for the Electoral College, Federalist 68
As shown above, the American political system was not originally designed as a populist/majoritarian system. It was not until the passage of laws such as the Fourteenth Amendment (1868), the Nineteenth Amendment (1920), and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that the majority of US citizens could directly participate in the country’s political process.
And, arguably, all of the presidents elected before Donald Trump were meritocrats of some kind, including those who were elected after 1965 through a mostly majoritarian system. These presidents have either served in public office or in the military for some numerous years before assuming the presidency, according to this Wikipedia page. It can thus be concluded that the election of Donald Trump, an outsider to politics who, using Hamilton’s words, just had “the little arts of popularity,” is very untraditional with regard to the two centuries of American constitutional history.
It is thereby quite interesting to analyze the reasons why this untraditional phenomenon happened in 2016: How did “Trumpism” happen in the United States? Why has the United States become a breeding ground for right-wing populism?
2. Economic Analysis of Trump’s Proposed Policies and His Supporters
Following Karl Marx’s “base determines superstructure” axiom, this section will analyze the economic reasons for which the stereotypical Trump supporters support Trump’s political platform (anti-immigration, anti-globalization, protectionism, etc.). There are undeniably some cultural factors involved in the rise of ring-wing populism in the US as well (e.g., religion, white nationalism, identity politics), however, the improbability to quantify such cultural variables would render the analysis of them too sophisticated, and thus they will not be discussed in this particular article.
The first thing to consider is, what economic situation are the stereotypical (grass-root) Trump supporters often living in? We already know their economic identity from the expansive news coverage: they are often working-class/lower-middle-class white Americans living in the Rust Belt, and with relatively low levels of education.
Given these facts, we can see that the stereotypical Trump supporters mostly work in local industries that require mainly manual labor and little professional knowledge. These industries include manufacturing, construction, mining, power plant operations, logging, farming, driving, fishing, etc..
A common characteristic among these blue-collar jobs is that they are easily replaceable.
Since most blue-collar jobs do not require a high level of education, automation can provide business owners with greater productivity, while also enabling business owners to avoid labor disputes/strikes that may impede their process of capital accumulation. Technology downgrades and alienates workers as they are no longer regarded as possessing a specialized skill, contributing to the difference of interests between the workers and their employers.
Facing the advent of new technology and automation, the stereotypical Trump supporters are significantly disadvantaged. In addition, as labor costs are increasing and robot prices decreasing, factory owners will certainly hire robots instead of manual labor as their principal productive force in a free market system — and this will inevitably result in growing unemployment and poverty rates.
One aspect that Graph 3 does not mention is that the abilities and efficiency of robots have been increasing as well, making automation a more and more preferable choice of the productive force in the US manufacturing industry.
From Graph 4 and Graph 5, we can see that workers in traditionally Republican-leaning states are experiencing greater competition pressure due to automation than workers in traditionally Democratic-leaning states. This may explain why the support for a populist “game-changer” on the right (Trump) is relatively much stronger than that on the left (Sanders) in the US.
On the other hand, although also facing pressure from automation, immigrant workers may deliver the same output as the stereotypical Trump supporters do, and with less pay. Immigrants are often willing to accept less pay, as they may come from places that were much poorer than where they currently live in the US, or because they’re desperate for a job that can legally or financially allow them to stay in the US (this is especially true for immigrants who came into the US via illegal means).
Facing the hard-working and desperate immigrant workers, the stereotypical Trump supporters are once again significantly disadvantaged. However, this time around, since their competitors are humans from a “cultural out-group,” the stereotypical Trump supporters could entitle themselves to a moral high ground by claiming that these immigrants “illegally stole their jobs.”
As analyzed in Part I § 3, the “us-vs-them mentality” is core to the philosophy of populism. As for the right-wing populism that Trump represents, this “us-vs-them” mentality translates into the mentality of “American workers vs. foreign job thieves.” The stereotypical Trump supporter hates it when people from a cultural out-group “take advantage of our great American economic success,” whether they do so by coming into the US illegally, or stealing “our American jobs” offshore.
The stereotypical Trump supporters tend to blame foreigners and the cosmopolitan elites for initiating “bad trade deals” with other countries, which they believe have harmed the interests of American workers and American manufacturing industries. (Robots are ignored because they cannot be personified as a cultural “out-group,” or cannot stir up the nationalist emotions as effectively).
Hence, such an “us-vs-them mentality,” which takes roots in the lack of an economic sense of gain, when incited by cultural insecurity and nationalist rhetoric, results in a preference for protectionist and isolationist policies that aim to protect the disadvantaged domestic industries from international competition. At the same time, however, the stereotypical Trump supporters are in favor of policies that preserve a liberal domestic economy free from governmental interventions, as they deeply believe in the orthodox myths of the free-market and the “self-made man.”
This matches perfectly with the Marxist critique this article offered in Part 1 § 1: the workers and small business owners (petite bourgeoisie) in the manufacturing industry reject common ownership and governmental regulations but expect their government to provide them with rightist positive rights, such as and especially a competitive advantage over foreign competitors by either starting trade wars or establishing an autarky.
To build on our incredible economic success, one priority is paramount, reversing decades of calamitous trade policies, so bad. We are now making it clear to China that after years of targeting our industries and stealing our intellectual property, the theft of American jobs and wealth has come to an end.
— Donald Trump, during his State of the Union address in 2019
One has to admit that Trump is a good problem finder. He pointed out the main reason for which the American manufacturing industry has been declining: globalization. It enabled American manufacturers to outsource or subcontract America’s manufacturing industry to other regions of lower labor costs and ultimately forced American workers to compete with foreign workers and even foreign robots.
Yet, being able to find the problem does not imply being able to solve the problem. Even though Trump’s protectionist policies may create a short-term demand for American workers in the manufacturing sector, however, Trump’s apparent negligence of the rapid growth and diversification of automation and his failure to contain the Covid-19 outbreak in the United States, as well as China’s reciprocal tariffs placed on American goods due to the trade war, would ultimately do more harm to the American workers as manufacturers are replacing manual labor with robots and relocating their factories to places where the Covid-19 outbreak has been contained and where the cost of production is lower (e.g., Vietnam).
In short, this is Trumpism: the overall ideological combination of nationalism and conservatism that aims to “Make America Great Again,” and an economy-focused, practical and protectionist approach addressing specifically the “silent majority’s” economic hardship. Compared to the platforms of the Democratic or the Republican establishments, Trumpism appeals more to the stereotypical Trump supporters because it is much easier to understand in logic, much easier to sympathize with emotion, and much more relevant to their stagnant economic situation.
3. An America Divided: Result of High Income Inequality
“A house divided against itself, cannot stand.”
— Abraham Lincoln
Following Part II § 2, a question may naturally arise: why did the US embrace globalization if Americans could not benefit from it?
An answer to that question is, as a society structured on the principle of pluralism, it has become very difficult to find a “common interest” among all Americans. Today’s America is especially divided: the cosmopolitan elites in New York or Washington DC and the working-class people in flyover states live completely different lives, consume completely different types of information, receive completely different amounts of economic income, possess completely different worldviews, and thereby have completely different interests.
In real life, they may never come across each other in a lifetime, and may often despise each other for their beliefs or cultures as they see each other in news headlines. One can hardly imagine that these two disparate types of people may sympathize with each other solely because they live under the same federal government.
In a more generic sense, today’s America may be divided into two main camps: the elites and the people. The elites can be defined as the richest few percent of the US who head the large businesses, control the media, and have benefited from globalization. Due to various US political mechanisms such as lobbying and the “revolving door,” these capitalist elites were highly influential in the country’s decision-making process and have been able to push policies that were in favor of globalization, which has helped them substantially reduce their cost of production.
Most of the elites are pro-establishment and pro-globalization, regardless of their party alignment (many of them often donate to both parties simultaneously). The apparently rampant “corrupt bargains” between the capitalist elites and the politicians, which are indeed legalized and regulated in the US political system, have turned the country into, in the people’s eyes, a plutocracy that has democracy as its façade but the exploitation of the people as its core.
As such, the elites and the politicians who are close to the elites are regarded as “the deep state” by the majority of people who are tired of the status quo. This view is commonly shared by populists on both ends of the political spectrum, who want to “drain the swamp” and re-establish the principle of popular sovereignty in the United States.
Feeling neglected by the political elites in Washington DC, the stereotypical Trump supporters often claim themselves to be part of the “silent majority.” In my opinion, the “silent majority” is not just the stereotypical Trump supporters, but also those who live paycheck to paycheck and cannot afford the high prices of social services available in the large cities (these are often Bernie Sanders’s supporters). These metropolitan white-collar workers embrace progressive and liberal cultural values, yet they have suffered from a liberal market economy in which their positive rights such as affordable healthcare, housing, and education are not guaranteed.
As analyzed in Part 1 § 1, high income inequality is a major precursor of the potential rise of populism. This matches with the 21st-century United States, which has seen various anti-establishment social movements such as the Occupy Wall Street movement (2011) and the election of Donald Trump (2016). The American people’s anger toward the establishment (the elites), regardless of its rationality, ultimately results from the lack of a sense of gain that is so entrenched in America’s middle to lower-middle class due to past US policies and an economic system that tend to favor the extreme rich for most of the times.
In the past, such high income inequality would result in the rise of left-wing populism and unionism (such as the AFL and the CIO during the Progressive Era). This would entail strikes, class struggles, common ownership of the mode of production, etc.
In today’s America, however, there is not much class consciousness among the workers. The working-class stereotypical Trump supporters would even denounce such class consciousness as “socialism” or “communism;” while the leftists in the Democratic Party are often too ashamed to proclaim themselves “socialists,” although their proposed policies, such as universal healthcare and redistributive taxation, are undeniably socialist policies.
Based on my observation, there are three dominant reasons for this interesting lack of leftist movements in the US:
- Stigmatization of socialism: Due to the Cold War, many middle-aged Americans grew up with a naturally ingrained distaste of the Soviet Union’s “socialism” or “communism,” and would unconditionally side with liberalism whenever “socialism” attempts to infiltrate the Land of the Free. This sentiment is also commonly found in other regions of anti-communist (Red Scare) traditions, such as Hong Kong SAR and South Korea, where the poor and unsatisfied majority would often turn to right-wing populism instead of leftist ideals to express their discontent of the capitalist establishment.
- Bourgeois nationalism: “The people” in America are very diverse and divided. “The people” may include the stereotypical Trump supporters (working-class whites in rural areas), white-collar workers in large metropolises, ethnic minorities such as African Americans and Latinx Americans, and marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ+ community. For instance, while one group of “the people” may detest PC culture, another may support it and denounce such refusal to accept PC culture as racism or sexism (which certainly remain significant societal problems in today’s America). The irreconcilable social and cultural divide among the working-class Americans prevents them from collectively initiating a class warfare against the capitalist elites.
- Rugged individualism: It is undoubted that rugged individualism is a core part of the traditional American culture and the American identity. This particular type of individualism, which originates from the nation’s pursuit of independence and its frontier culture during the Manifest Destiny, emphasizes the individual’s self-reliance and independence from societal or governmental interventions, making collectivism and socialism unfavorable in the eyes of the American people.
Coming into the 21st century, the United States of America has become a union of very diverse yet divided tribes of people. Its traditional liberal free-market economy has resulted in a real-world Matthew effect, enlarging the income gap between the rich and the poor and instigating the majority’s distrust of the ruling elites.
At the same time, its diverse cultures have contributed to a deep cultural divide and mistrust among different races, ethnicities, genders, sexualities of its working class, preventing the American workers from collectively standing up to the capitalist elites and the establishment, and thereby resulting in the rise of right-wing populism rather than class struggles and left-wing revolutions. The rise of Trumpism, as well as its consequent reinforcement of American Tribalism, will keep the country divided and stuck in a never-ending cycle of the tyranny of one tribe over the others that repeats itself each four or eight years in the foreseeable future.
1. Alvaredo, Facundo. Zucman, Gabriel. Saez, Emmanuel. Piketty, Thomas. Chancel, Lucas.”The 2018 World Income Inequality Report (English Version)”. World Inequality Lab.
2. Bartash, J. (2018, May 14). China really is to blame for millions of lost U.S. manufacturing jobs, new study finds. Retrieved September 09, 2020, from https://www.marketwatch.com/story/china-really-is-to-blame-for-millions-of-lost-us-manufacturing-jobs-new-study-finds-2018-05-14
3. Gramlich, J. (2020, September 08). Far more immigration cases are being prosecuted criminally under Trump administration. Retrieved September 09, 2020, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/09/27/far-more-immigration-cases-are-being-prosecuted-criminally-under-trump-administration/
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